Delicate ribbons of colour dance across the Arctic sky: These are the northern lights in Norway.
Top of so many people’s bucket lists, the aurora borealis is a major tourist attraction for northern Scandinavia.
Northern lights are caused by electrons streaming out from the sun in a solar wind. When they are caught by the Earth’s magnetic field, the electrons are forced into the polar atmosphere where they collide with atoms and molecules. This collision creates tiny emissions of light. When that happens billions of times, it culminates in the lights we see from the ground.
If you monitor the Sun and observe strong disruptions, you can expect a display of northern lights a couple of days later. Although predicting the lights sounds technical, thanks to modern technology it’s no more difficult than checking the weather forecast.
In fact, that’s what you’re doing, checking the sun’s weather forecast looking for solar winds. Several websites predict the light display and although it’s not an exact science, it does give you a realistic idea of whether you can expect a display over the coming few nights. My favourite resource for space weather watching is Aurora Service Europe.
Where and when to go
The most important thing to state upfront is there is absolutely no guarantee of seeing the northern lights in Norway wherever you go. However, it’s true to say that you can do several things to increase your chances.
The basic requirements are simple: total darkness and a clear sky. This immediately rules out the summer months in northern Norway, as the midnight sun ensures light throughout the season, day and night.
It also means you should avoid coastal areas as there is a higher chance of cloud cover, and get away from the ambient light of built-up areas. Luckily, Arctic Norway is made up of miles and miles of remote wilderness, offering some excellent vantage spots.
You should also avoid midwinter when the worst weather tends to hit the region. September-October and February-March are generally accepted to be the best times to chase the aurora borealis.
Where to stay
Chasing the northern lights is an incredible experience. Although seeing them can never be guaranteed, one thing can be: you will get cold. Sometimes you will be standing outside in the cold for hours, and not matter how well dressed you are, you are going to feel the chill. It really is worth investing in a hotel for a northern lights chase, and in the north of Norway that normally means Tromsø, or if you really don’t mind the cold, Alta.
I’ve seen the lights overhead from the city centre of Tromsø so it’s definitely possible to enjoy a display without leaving the city, but your chances increase drastically the further away you go. Still, the small yet lively city of Tromsø makes an excellent base for your nighttime adventures.
How to see the northern lights in Norway
The big decision to make is whether you take a guided tour or try going solo. If you have a car, it’s worth considering a solo adventure, otherwise stick with a tour group. Most groups are small and are facilitated by expert chasers who use the very latest technology to know when and where to drive. Some groups have been known to travel hundreds of kilometres in one night across the Swedish and Finnish borders to find those elusive clear skies.
What to pack
If you are joining an organised tour group, warm clothes, food and drink are normally provided (do check!) but nevertheless it is sensible to dress warmly. Many groups offer an outer layer body suit, but you will still need to be wearing at least three layers on top and two on the bottom. Good quality base layers are highly advisable, as is a woollen jumper, thick gloves, thick socks and sturdy boots.
A torch will come in handy, and if you bring a camera it is advisable to bring a spare battery, but keep that spare battery wrapped inside a sock or something else snug!
How to photograph the aurora
I asked Trine Risvik, a guide from Tromsø Friluftsenter, how to take the perfect photo.
“A big element of what we do is showing people how to get the best from their camera. Although there are some that spend so much time fiddling with the settings that they get angry with the camera and end up missing some really magical moments up in the sky! One time I went over to a bickering couple and took away the camera. I told them to look relax, and just look at the sky! I took the picture for them. Every night I take pictures of all my guests so they can take away a souvenir, even if they don’t have a camera.”
“You need a camera that is able to have a long shutter speed and a low aperture, which means generally a mid-range SLR camera, although the newer semi-automatic cameras that offer you a higher shutter speed and a lower aperture will give you most of what you need.”
“If there is a strong, playful northern light, you can accept a higher ISO and a shorter shutter speed, but with fainter, slower light, you need long exposure time and a lower ISO. Either way, you need as lower aperture as possible. For those wanting the absolute best pictures with scenery included, you must come during a full moon. All the photos you see including fjords, mountains and cabins require the full moon.”